Saturday, August 30, 2008

Leach: Is art any use?

Is art any use? Is anything any use? So asked one of Britain’s most famous potters, Bernard Leach, in his diary exactly one hundred years ago today. And, he gave himself an answer - of sorts! Historically, there are not many craftspeople who kept diaries, but Leach did, and, according to Archives Hub, they make for ‘illuminating reading’.

The Archives Hub - which provides access to descriptions of unique and unpublished primary source material held in universities, colleges and research institutes - gives a good short biography for Leach. He was born in 1887 in Hong Kong and lived in the Far East until the age of ten, when he came to school at a Jesuit college in England. At 16, in 1903, he was admitted to Slade, as their youngest student, and subsequently studied etching, and in 1909 went to work in Japan as an etcher. Soon, though, he discovered ceramics and trained with Japanese masters. After befriending a young potter named Shoji Hamada, the two of them came to England, to St Ives, Cornwall, and set up the Leach Pottery, which over time was to become hugely influential.

During the 1930s, Leach started teaching at Dartington Hall, and he set up a pottery in Shinner’s Bridge. He also worked as a draughtsman and, according to the Archives Hub biography, was hugely influential as a writer and thinker. During an extremely active life, he was continually at the centre of developments in the studio crafts, leading and participating in demonstrations, conferences, and exhibiting and touring around the world. It is estimated that Leach made about 100,000 pots during his lifetime and sold well over that number of his most famous written work, A Potter’s Book. Moreover, Archives Hub says, his letters and diaries, which are housed at the Crafts Study Centre in Farnham, make ‘illuminating reading’.

Historically, many priests, writers and politicians have kept diaries, but very few craftspeople have. Of over 500 diarists listed by The Diary Junction only five are categorised as craftspeople, and none as potters (there is no data on Leach himself yet). So Leach is quite a rarity. VADS, the online resource for visual arts in the UK, has nearly 1,000 images for Leach, including, of course, his ceramics, but also photographs, letters, and many pages from his diary.

One of those pages is for 30 August 1908, one hundred years go today. Leach, then aged 21, was in a philosophical mood. He wrote this in the diary: ‘Question: What is the greater - the artist (Raphael) who appeals to all the multitude and the senses or the artist (Blake) who appeals only to the highest minds. What the devil has the ‘mot’ to do with art? What is the ratio between art and humanity? Is art any use? Is anything any use? To live happily one must take it for granted it is!’

Friday, August 29, 2008

Normandy to Victory

A major World War II diary is about to be published for the first time. It chronicles the activities of General Courtney Hodges and the First US Army from D-Day to the German surrender, and, according to the publisher, offers ‘an intriguing glimpse into the personalities and operations of Allied military leaders’. Although the diary has not been published hitherto, it was used extensively in a biography of Hodges. For an insight into the enemy, albeit at a political rather than a military level, see the diary of Galeazzo Ciano.

Normandy to Victory has just been published by University Press of Kentucky in the US (Amazon) and is due out in the UK (Amazon) on 1 September. It’s subtitled, The War Diary of General Courtney H. Hodges and the First US Army, but the writing is credited to two of his aides - Major William C. Sylvan and Captain Francis G. Smith Jr. - who recorded daily entries, which Hodges reviewed and approved. According to the publisher, the book chronicles Hodges’ ascent to Commanding General in August 1944, as well as his viewpoints on strategy and the enemy; and it follows Hodges and the First Army ‘through savage European combat until the German surrender in May 1945’.

During World War II, officers were encouraged to record their everyday activities and those of their units, and this diary, about Hodges and the First Army, the publisher says, is one of ‘the most important’. Only available to researchers until now, retired US Army officer and historian, John T Greenwood, has edited the entries for a more general readership. However, the publisher stresses that Hodges’ aides were not privy to the top-level discussions with Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton and others, and so the diary mostly recounts ‘on-the-ground’ details.

A release from University Press of Kentucky on 22 August gives more details. It says the diary opens on 2 June 1944, as Hodges and the First Army prepare for the Allied invasion of France, and closes on 7 May 1944 with a representative of the High German Command signaling surrender of all German land. It highlights the crucial role that Hodges’ Army played in the execution of Northern European battles, ‘being the first army to cross the German border, the first to cross the Rhine, and the first to close to the Elbe’ which enabled it to spearhead successful operations for the troops who followed.

Although the promotional material for the book does not include any extracts from the diary itself, Stephen T Wishnevsky used the diary extensively for his biography - Courtney Hicks Hodges - published in 2006 by McFarland. Many pages from this are available to view on Googlebooks. Here is an extract which includes a bit of the Hodges diary.

‘One visit to the 30th led ‘the General’ as Sylvan referred to him, to remark that there were two kinds of offices, ‘the quick and the dead, and he preferred to be among the former.’ On that visit, shells screamed overhead, and Hodges and his aide were close enough to hear the short range ‘Screaming Meanies’ and the crackle of small arms fire. On this day there was a briefing at Montgomery’s HQ, with Patton in attendance. He scowled in his diary, ‘Monty went to great lengths explaining why the British have done nothing.’ ’ And here’s another snippet from later on in Wishnevsky’s book: ‘There is no evidence he [Hodges] ever took a whole day off and the War Diary records only two evenings he didn’t work until midnight.’

For a first-hand view from the other side in the conflict, one can turn to Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini’s son-in-law, who left a good set of diaries. Having married Mussolini’s daughter Edda, Ciano rose to become a member of the Fascist Supreme Council, then secretary of state for press and propaganda, and eventually minister of foreign affairs. In 1939, he signed the Pact of Steel with Germany’s Joachim von Ribbentrop. The Diary Junction provides more information on Ciano and links to his texts. Here, though, is an example from the diaries, from 8 December 1941, the day after Pearl Harbour:

‘A night telephone call from Ribbentrop. He is overjoyed about the Japanese attack on America. He is so happy about it that I am happy with him, though I am not too sure about the final advantages of what has happened. One thing is now certain, that America will enter the conflict and that the conflict will be so long that she will be able to realize all her potential forces. This morning I told this to the King who had been pleased about the event. He ended by admitting that, in the long run, I may be right. Mussolini was happy, too. For a long time he has favored a definite clarification of relations between America and the Axis.’

More authoritative information about World War II diaries (and other sources), however, is available from World War II Plus 55, a website run by American journalist, David H Lippman. In a discussion on methodology for his history articles, for example, he refers to a number of original diary (and other) sources. This is Lippman on Ciano’s diary. ‘[His] cynicism is brutal and raw, revealing the tawdry nature of the Fascist state and its drive for empire at the expense of others. The diaries were intended as Ciano’s blackmail weapon when he was arrested for helping to overthrow Mussolini, but they did not save his life. Instead they stand as a testament to the aggressive and incompetent leadership of the Fascist regime.’

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Hymn writer in sex scandal

Charles Wesley, one of Britain’s greatest hymn writers and a founder of Methodism, was plagued by a sex scandal while staying in the new American colony of Georgia. This information has, apparently, just come to light because a professor at Liverpool Hope University has deciphered coded passages in Wesley’s diaries. (However, the story may not be as new as the professor or some British newspapers are suggesting.) Both Charles and his equally famous reverend brother, John, were committed diarists, and their diaries (not including coded passages!) are all freely available online.

Charles and his older brother John were born at Epworth, Lincolnshire, and educated at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford. According to the website of the Methodist Church of the UK, Charles was ‘a bit of a lad’ in his early Oxford days, but then formed the Holy Club for prayer and bible study. Subsequently, John joined and became its leading light. Other students nicknamed the members of the group as ‘Methodists’. Charles was ordained in the Church of England in 1735, and that same year went to the British colony of Georgia, with John. There, he held the post of secretary to the colonial governor, James Edward Oglethorpe, but - apparently because of ill health - returned to the UK more than a year earlier than his brother.

According to a news story just published in The Daily Mail, however, it now seems Charles ‘fled home amid allegations that he had sex with a colonist after trapping her husband under a tree’. This scandal - from 270 years ago - was uncovered, says The Daily Mail, by Reverend Professor Kenneth Newport, of Liverpool Hope University, who finally managed to decipher passages of Wesley’s diaries written in code. He did this by realising that Wesley had used the same code to transcribe parts of the King James Bible.

The coded paragraphs, explains The Daily Mail, show that Wesley was accused of sexual misconduct by a woman named Mrs Anne Welch, wife to the colonists’ doctor. And they also reveal that he was concerned because, while walking with a maid, a pair of colonists had shouted at him: ‘There goes the parson with his whore. I saw her and him were under the bushes.’ According to The Daily Mail and The Times (which shuns any mention of the sex scandal), the newly decoded passages also reveal significant tensions between the two brothers, particularly about each other’s marriages.

But Jeff Campbell, from Wharton, New Jersey, says these ‘new’ facts are not so new. In a comment submitted to The Daily Mail’s website, he says he found out about Charles Wesley’s difficulties in Georgia ‘over four years ago’ at a seminary class with someone called Dr. Charles Yirgoyen! Campbell thus claims Wesley fell in love with the daughter of the head of the colony, and when she did not return his affections and asked to be married to another man, he refused to marry them and was locked up. Campbell adds ‘it is said that someone broke him out of jail and he ran back to England’. He also says that the strained relations between John and Charles over the years has been well documented.

The Diary Junction provides a brief biography for both John and Charles Wesley, both of whom went on to develop Britain’s first widely successful evangelical movement, and gives links to websites where the text of their diaries can be found. John kept a diary for most of his life until his death in 1791, but Charles, who died three years earlier, stopped in the 1750s (perhaps because he was too busy writing hymns, such as Hark, the Herald Angels Sing).

Here are two extracts from Charles’ diary from 1736. The first is taken from a published edition of his diary online (thanks to A Vision of Britain Through Time), and the second, a day later, is one of the decoded passages provided by today’s story in The Times online (there is no entry for 22 March 1736 in the published edition).

21 March
‘Mr Oglethorpe had ordered, more often than once, that no man should shoot on a Sunday. Germain had been committed to the guard-room for it in the morning, but was, upon his submission, released. In the midst of the sermon a gun was fired. Davison, the constable, ran out, and found it was the Doctor; told him it was contrary to orders, and he was obliged to desire him to come to the officer. Upon this the Doctor flew into a great passion, and said, ‘What, do you not know that I am not to be looked upon as a common fellow?’ Not knowing what to do, the constable went, and returned, after consulting with Hermsdorf, with two centinels, and brought him to the guard-room. Hereupon M. H. charged and fired a gun; and then ran thither, like a mad woman, crying she had shot, and would be confined too. The constable and Hermsdorf persuaded her to go away. She cursed and swore in the utmost transport of passion, threatening to kill the first man that should come near her. Alas, my brother! what has become of thy hopeful convert?

In the afternoon, while I was talking in the street with poor Catherine, her mistress came up to us, and fell upon me with the utmost bitterness and scurrility; saying she would blow me up, and my brother, whom she once thought honest, but was now undeceived: that I was the cause of her husband's confinement; but she would be revenged, and expose my hypocrisy, my prayers four times a day, by beat of drum, and abundance more, which I cannot write, and thought no woman, though taken from Drurylane, could have spoken. I only said, I pitied her, but defied all she or the devil could do; for she could not hurt me. I was strangely preserved from passion, and at parting told her that, I hoped she would soon come to a better mind. . . .

. . . At night I was forced to exchange my usual bed, the ground, for a chest, being almost speechless through a violent cold.’

22 March
‘While I was persuading Mr Welch not to concern himself in this disturbance, I heard Mrs Hawkins cry out: ‘Murder!’ and walked away. Returning out of the woods, I was informed by Mr Welch that poor blockhead Mrs Welch had joined with Mrs Hawkins and the Devil in their slanders of me. I would not believe it till half the town told me the same, and exclaimed against her ingratitude.’

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The origin of pirate legends

Captain Henry Morgan is one of the most famous pirates in history, largely thanks to Alexander Exquemelin, one of his buccaneers, who wrote a diary. Originally published in the 1670s, this diary (or more strictly speaking a memoir) has rarely been out of print, but HarperCollins has just brought out a new, fancy edition - The Illustrated Pirate Diaries - complete with maps, paintings and even photographs! However, Exquemelin’s full text, with beautiful illustrations, can be downloaded freely from the web.

HarperCollins in the US has just published The Illustrated Pirate Diaries: A Remarkable Eyewitness Account of Captain Morgan and the Buccaneers; and, according to Amazon, it is being released in the UK shortly, in September. Of all the pirates to terrorise the Caribbean waters, says HarperCollins, none are as notorious as Sir Henry Morgan. But his fame comes largely from the diary of buccaneer Alexander Exquemelin, who sailed under Morgan and recorded his infamous and bloody adventures.

Exquemelin (also spelled Esquemeling and other variants) was probably born around 1645 in France, but aged 21 or so he went to work for the French West India Company in the Caribbean. There he enlisted with the buccaneers, and Henry Morgan’s band, possibly serving Morgan directly as a barber-surgeon. On returning to Europe, he settled in Holland, and his diary was first published in 1678, in Dutch, as De Americaensche Zee-Roovers. Since then, the book has had an interesting history.

The Lots of Essays website, which has a useful extract about the diary, explains that it was soon published in a Spanish translation in 1681, and then in English in 1684. However, while the author was originally listed as Alexander Olivier Exquemelin in the Dutch original, his name was transformed to John Esquemeling for the English translation. His book is considered to have been very influential in forming a stereotype image of a pirate, one that persists to this day; and it has been published in many editions. Indeed, Wikipedia’s article on Exquemelin says this: ‘It has rightly been said that perhaps no book of the seventeenth century in any language was ever the parent of so many imitations and the source of so much fiction.’

In 2006, Constable & Robinson published The Mammoth Book of Pirates which included Exquemelin’s ‘fly-on-the-wall account’ of the ‘wicked order of pirates, or robbers of the sea’. But this new book from HarperCollins is ‘a special illustrated edition filled with maps, paintings, photographs, and fascinating background on pirate culture’, and promises that the ‘unforgettable diary comes to new life, bringing the authentic world of the buccaneers to a modern audience far better than any movie could’. HarperCollins provides a quote: ‘Morgan hurled himself at the fuse, and saved all his comrades’ lives. His bravery was already the stuff of legend, and this exploit made his men even more determined to follow him anywhere.’

However, a lovely 1914 edition of the book - complete with swashbuckling pictures by George Alfred Williams - can be downloaded for free from the Internet Archive. The full title is The Pirates of Panama or Buccaneers of America a true account of the famous adventures and daring deeds of Sir Henry Morgan and other notorious freebooters of the Spanish Main; and the author is given as ‘John Esquemeling, one of the buccaneers who was present at those tragedies’.

Here is an extract from Exquemelin’s book. It concerns Captain Morgan’s expedition in 1670 to take the city of Panama (which I’ve chosen simply because it’s about the same day as today - 26 August).

‘Captain Morgan sent two hundred men before the body of his army, to discover the way to Panama, and any ambuscades therein: the path being so narrow, that only ten or twelve persons could march abreast, and often not so many. After ten hours’ march they came to a place called Quebrada Obscura: here, all on a sudden, three or four thousand arrows were shot at them, they not perceiving whence they came, or who shot them: though they presumed it was from a high rocky mountain, from one side to the other, whereon was a grot, capable of but one horse or other beast laded. This multitude of arrows much alarmed the pirates, especially because they could not discover whence they were discharged.

At last, seeing no more arrows, they marched a little farther, and entered a wood: here they perceived some Indians to fly as fast as they could, to take the advantage of another post, thence to observe their march; yet there remained one troop of Indians on the place, resolved to fight and defend themselves, which they did with great courage till their captain fell down wounded; who, though he despaired of life, yet his valour being greater than his strength, would ask no quarter, but, endeavouring to raise himself, with undaunted mind laid hold of his azagayo, or javelin, and struck at one of the pirates; but before he could second the blow, he was shot to death. This was also the fate of many of his companions, who, like good soldiers, lost their lives with their captain, for the defence of their country. The pirates endeavoured to take some of the Indians prisoners, but they being swifter than the pirates, every one escaped, leaving eight pirates dead, and ten wounded: yea, had the Indians been more dextrous in military affairs, they might have defended that passage, and not let one man pass. . .’

Friday, August 22, 2008

A lady of old Japan

‘I was brought up in a distant province which lies farther than the farthest end of the Eastern Road. I am ashamed to think that inhabitants of the Royal City will think me an uncultured girl.’ So begins what is called The Sarashina Diary and which is considered one of the very earliest and most beautiful of travel diaries. The author, whose real name is not known, was a Japanese lady-in-waiting born 1,000 years ago.

It is not clear how the famous diary, and its author, came to get their name, but it probably arose because the geographical district, Sarashina, is alluded to in one of the book’s poems. However, it is known that Lady Sarashina was related to another (and slightly earlier) famous diarist, also without an exact name, but who’s referred to as the mother of Michitsuna. Lady Sarashina was probably born in 1008, in other words one thousand years ago (at a time when Ethelred the Unready was still trying to protect England from Danish invaders, and nearly a century before the first university would be founded in the western world, at Bologna).

What we know today about Lady Sarashina comes mostly from the diary, and Wikipedia has a good summary. In her childhood, she traveled to the provinces with her father, an assistant governor, and back to the capital some years later. She married late, in her 30s, and became a lady-in-waiting. Apparently, though, she was indifferent to her husband and children, and too shy and old for a successful career in court.

The diary was translated in the early part of the 19th century by Annie Shepley Omori and Kochi Doi and published along with others in Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan. The full text of the diary, as translated for that book and now out of copyright, is available online thanks to The Celebration of Women Writers website. Many pages and some illustrations from the book can also be viewed at Googlebooks

Here is another extract from The Sarashina Diary.

‘Mount Fuji is in this Province. In the Province where I was brought up I saw that mountain far towards the West. It towers up painted with deep blue, and covered with eternal snow. It seems that it wears a dress of deep violet and a white veil over its shoulders. From the little level place of the top smoke was going up. In the evening we even saw burning fires there. The Fuji River comes tumbling down from that mountain. A man of the Province came up to us and told us a story.

‘Once I went on an errand. It was a very hot day, and I was resting on the bank of the stream when I saw something yellow come floating down. It came to the bank of the river and stuck there. I picked it up and found it to be a scrap of yellow paper with words elegantly written on it in cinnabar. Wondering much I read it. On the paper was a prophecy of the Governors to be appointed next year. As to this Province there were written the names of two Governors. I wondered more and more, and drying the paper, kept it. When the day of the announcement came, this paper held no mistake, and the man who became the Governor of this Province died after three months, and the other succeeded him.’

There are such things. I think that the gods assemble there on that mountain to settle the affairs of each new year.’

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Conrad, Hottot and the Congo

One hundred years ago today (19 August), the Belgian government finally approved the annexation of Congo Free State - the entire area of the present Democratic Republic of the Congo - from Leopold II, the king of Belgium. During the previous 20 years or so, some 10 million Congolese had died because of ruthless exploitation for rubber production. The international outrage, which had led to the annexation, was partly stoked by Joseph Conrad’s famous novel, Heart of Darkness, based on a journey he took in 1890. Conrad kept a diary of that trip. There are also diaries by a French explorer, Robert Hottot, travelling in the Congo Free State in 1908. Much more recently, of course, Che Guevara kept a diary of his exploits in the country.

In 1876, a few years after his famous search for Dr Livingstone (see online diary text at Project Gutenberg), Henry Morton Stanley undertook some exploration for Belgium’s king Leopold II who was keen to colonise an area of Africa which would become the Congo. Professing humanitarian objectives, Leopold then managed to play off various European rivals against each other and formally acquire the territory for himself at the Conference of Berlin in 1885. Thereafter, it was a corporate state - he called it Congo Free State - privately controlled by him through a dummy non-governmental organisation, Association Internationale Africaine. For the next two decades, the state was mercilessly exploited for rubber production to meet a growing demand for car tyres. Wikipedia’s history, of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, explains that an army called the Force Publique (FP) would cut off the limbs of the Congolese to help enforce rubber quotas.

The appalling situation in Congo Free State began to attract international criticism, not least from writers such as Mark Twain and Joseph Conrad, and eventually led to an important report in 1904 by the Irish/British diplomat Roger Casement. He estimated that the population had been decimated by three million because of indiscriminate war, starvation, reduction of births and tropical diseases, (while other estimates suggest that around 10 million Congolese died in this period). Casement’s report also led to the arrest and punishment of white officials, and ultimately - on 19 August 1908, one hundred years ago - to the Belgian government agreeing to annex the territory. A treaty to that effect was signed the following November. The territory was renamed Belgian Congo and administered by the Belgian parliament until independence in 1960.

Conrad went to Congo Free State in 1890, and used his experiences there for a novella, Heart of Darkness, first published in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1899 as a three part serial. However, earlier he had published The Congo Diary, which in modern editions is often coupled with Heart of Darkness. Although the novella is freely available online at several sites (such as Ria Press), The Congo Diary is not. Some pages are available at Googlebooks, but thanks to Rod McLaren and his Rodcorp blog for providing a few extracts and relating them to Heart of Darkness. He says that stylistically, the staccato sentences of The Congo Diary are ‘the opposite of the elliptic, questing prose’ of Conrad’s later Heart of Darkness , but that it’s ‘an important precursor in content and emotion’.

A French explorer, A. Robert Hottot, also a diarist, travelled to Congo Free State three times in 1906, 1907 and 1908, the year Belgium finally acted to annex the territory from its king. Hottot died young in 1939, but had moved to Oxford in 1932 and had become a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. His papers, including diaries, and many fabulous photographs are held by Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, which has an online exhibition about the man. One of the online photographs shows two pages from his 1908 diary, in which Hottot describes the measurement of the local Kango people (pygmies) at Lake Tumba and lists objects he’s collected: three women’s belts, nine units of the local copper currency, and forty poisoned arrows.

Sixty years later, a diarist of a very different ilk would head for Belgian Congo - Che Guevara. His Bolivian diary was in the news a few weeks ago (see Che’s Last Days), and The Motorcycle Diaries were made famous by a recent film. But he also wrote a diary about his time in Africa - The African Dream: The Diaries of the Revolutionary War in the Congo. There’s quite a lot about Che’s time in the Congo on Wikipedia; The Guardian provided some extracts prior to the book’s belated publication in 2001; a few pages are viewable on Amazon; and has a longish review. Also, BBC world affairs correspondent Mark Doyle followed in Che’s footsteps and made a programme about his trip.

Monday, August 18, 2008

A Banjo and a Swagman

Original poems by one of Australia’s most famous poets, Banjo Paterson, have been found in the back of a soldier’s Boer War diary. The first line of Waltzing Matilda, probably Paterson’s most famous poem, talks of a jolly swagman, and, as it happens, there is a not-so-jolly swagman who kept a jolly good diary.

A local newspaper from the outskirts of Sydney, The Parramatta Advertiser, claimed a world exclusive last week when it ran the following story: Original Banjo Bush Ballads Discovered. According to the newspaper, the ballads were unearthed in a filing cabinet, in a tin shed at the back of the Royal New South Wales (NSW) Lancer Barracks in Parramatta, by former soldier and barracks spokesman, Ian Hawthorn. The ballads, both penned in 1899 and published in 1900, are called There’s Another Blessed Horse Fell Down and Johnny Boer.

What makes the ballads, and thus the find, so special is their author, none other than Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson, one of Australia’s greatest poets. At the time, Paterson was a correspondent with The Sydney Morning Herald, and was travelling on the SS Kent from Sydney to South Africa during the Boer War. Hawthorn told The Parramatta Advertiser that he was ‘150 per cent sure’ the handwritten poems were authentic Paterson, but that A$1,500 would be needed to verify the signature scientifically.

After The Parramatta Advertiser broke the story it surfaced in the national Australian press, and picked up some more details on the way. According to the Courier Mail, which is part of the network, the poems were actually written in the back of a diary kept by Major G. L. Lee, who was commanding a squadron of NSW Lancers in South Africa during the Boer War. According to Hawthorn the diary itself is also ‘hugely significant’.

Paterson was born in 1864 and, when young, was educated at a bush school in Binalong. Later, he went to a grammar school in Sydney and trained to be a solicitor. His first poems were published in the mid-1880s under a pseudonym - ‘The Banjo’. Subsequently, he became a journalist, but also worked with horses. He is most well remembered, though, as the author of many ballads and poems reflecting life in the outback areas, such as Binalong. He died in 1941. His image appears on the A$10 note.

Paterson’s most famous poem, Waltzing Matilda, starts as follows:
Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong,
Under the shade of a coolibah tree,
And he sang as he watched and waited ‘til his billy boiled
‘Who'll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me?’

Interestingly, there is a Welshman, named Joseph Jenkins, who immortalised the lifestyle of a swagman - perhaps not a very jolly one - by keeping detailed diaries of his itinerant lifestyle in Victoria state for 25 years. He was born in Blaenplwyf, Cardiganshire, in 1818, and lived on his parents farm until the age of 28, when he married and tried to start his own farm. But in 1868, aged about 50, he ran off to Australia, working as a labourer in central Victoria, and eventually settling in Maldon. He only returned to Wales when his health started to fail in 1894; and he died four years later. Many volumes of detailed diaries he’d kept were discovered in Wales 70 years later. Extracts about his time in Australia were first published in 1975 with the title Diary of a Welsh Swagman. I can’t find any extracts of this online, but second hand copies are available through Abebooks.

The State Library of Victoria acquired the Australian diaries in 1997, and its website explains their importance: ‘The diaries are a reflective view of Jenkins’ life and detail the day-to-day tasks in a developing colony – splitting timber, digging ditches, hanging gates and fencing. . . Jenkins was an astute social commentator, and his diaries offer invaluable insights into 19th-century rural Victoria and the problems facing the young colony. Critical of much of the farming practices he saw around him, Jenkins had a keen interest in land management and sustainable agriculture. He did not confine himself to commenting on agricultural matters, deep though his interest and knowledge of the subject was. The diaries also contain observations on human nature, Jenkins’ poetry, and provide an indication of his reading habits. They also show an empathy with indigenous people and interest in world affairs.’

More recently, the diaries have been re-edited to provide a fuller picture of Jenkins life in a title published in 2002 - Pity the Swagman: The Australian Odyssey of a Victorian Diarist. says this about the man and his diaries: ‘Readers will find a rather different, though sympathetic, portrait in Bethan Phillips’ excellent biography, fifteen years in preparation, which has drawn on all Joseph’s surviving diaries. A melancholy and introspective man, he called his diary ‘this long lonely affair with myself’ and considered he was ‘doomed’ from his birth in 1818, at Blaenplwyf near Talsarn. He kept his diaries and notebooks as a ‘monument’ to his life.’

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Tōjō’s resistance to surrender

Pages from a diary kept by Hideki Tōjō, Japanese Prime Minister, in the days before Japan’s surrender in the Second World War have just come to light. They show that despite the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, he was in favour of fighting on. Tōjō, who was executed in 1948, also kept a prison diary, and this was first published in 1991. An English translation, which is freely available online, includes this extract: ‘It is natural that I should bear entire responsibility for the war in general’.

Tōjō, born in 1884, entered the Imperial Japanese Army at a young age, and steadily worked his way up the ranks. In July 1941, he was appointed minister of war by the prime minister, Fumimaro Kondoye; and, a few months later, succeeded to the post of prime minister himself. Initially, he backed efforts to reach agreement with the US but then ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor in December. He also pressed on with advances throughout Southeast Asia and the Pacific region. However, with the fall of Saipan in the Mariana Islands in 1944, he was forced to resign, and went into seclusion. After Japan’s surrender, in September 1945, he was arrested, found guilty of several war crimes by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, and hanged.

Recently, the National Archives of Japan released approximately 20 pages of diary notes written by Tōjō in the final days of the war, and these were published for the first time in Nikkei newspaper earlier this week (to mark the 63rd anniversary of Japan’s surrender). The story was then distributed around the world by Associated Press and others, focused largely on the key point that Tōjō was keen for his country to carry on fighting even after Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been destroyed by the US’s nuclear bombs. The AP story quotes Kazufumi Takayama, curator of the Archives, who puts it like this: ‘The notes show Tōjō kept his dyed-in-the-wool militarist mentality until the very end’.

Various extracts of the diary have been published. The Daily Telegraph has this one from 10 August 1945, the day after the Nagasaki bombing: ‘The Japanese government has accepted the notion that Japan is the loser and it appears to be going to accept unconditional surrender. . . Such a position frustrates the officers and soldiers of the imperial armed forces. Without fully employing its abilities even at the final moment, the imperial nation is surrendering to the enemies’ propaganda . . . I never imagined such torpor in the nation's leaders and its people.’

The AP story has a couple of extracts from a few days later, 13 August 1945: ‘We now have to see our country surrender to the enemy without demonstrating our power up to 120 percent’; and, ‘we are now on a course for a humiliating peace, or rather a humiliating surrender.’ And here’s another extract: ‘Now that the diplomatic steps have been taken after the emperor’s judgment [for surrender], I have decided to refrain from making any comments about it, though I have a separate view.’

However, Tōjō also kept a diary while in Sugamo prison, after the war, awaiting trial. The text of this diary, in English, is available online thanks to VHO, which calls itself ‘the world’s largest website for historical revisionism!’ ! (the second exclamation mark is mine) and a 1992 issue of its Journal of Historical Review. (In the same issue is an article entitled Hoover-era American plan for war against Britain and Canada uncovered.)

The Journal of Historical Review says the Tōjō diary consists of several essays, and a reconstructed daily log of the critical period of the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack, and says that it was composed in part as an aid for his trial proceedings. Unknown to the world for 4o years apparently, it was first published in Japan in 1991 by historian Sanae Sato. The VHO translation was jointly prepared by General Hideo Miki, retired professor of Japan’s National Defense Academy, and Henry Symington, an American specialist of Japanese economic and social affairs.

There is not much diary-like material in the diary, but here is an interesting, but undated, extract: ‘It is natural that I should bear entire responsibility for the war in general, and, needless to say, I am prepared to do so. Consequently, now that the war has been lost, it is presumably necessary that I be judged so that the circumstances of the time can be clarified and the future peace of the world be assured. Therefore, with respect to my trial, it is my intention to speak frankly, according to my recollection, even though when the vanquished stands before the victor, who has over him the power of life and death, he may be apt to toady and flatter. I mean to pay considerable attention to this in my actions, and say to the end that what is true is true and what is false is false. To shade one’s words in flattery to the point of untruthfulness would falsify the trial and do incalculable harm to the nation, and great care must be taken to avoid this.’

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Memories of Dylan Thomas

A diary written in a school exercise book by Caitlin Thomas, two years after her husband Dylan Thomas died, has been put up for sale by Rick Gekoski, an independent London bookseller. In a collection with other letters and books, he’s calling it ‘the finest Dylan Thomas material ever put together’ and is charging nearly half a million dollars (quarter of a million pounds), three times more than anything else in his current catalogue or on his sales website.

Dylan Thomas, a Welsh poet born in 1914 but who died of alcohol poisoning before he was 40, became particularly well known for his speaking voice, captivating American audiences during tours in the 1950s, and recording over 200 broadcasts for the BBC. His most famous work is probably Under Milk Wood, a poetical radio play set in Llareggub, a fictional Welsh fishing village.

In July 1937, Thomas married Caitlin MacNamara, and they had three children. After Dylan’s death in 1953, she moved to Italy and had another child with Giuseppe Fazio. She died in 1994. According to Wikipedia’s article, she replied to a question on a talk show about how she remembered her husband, by saying he ‘was an utter shit’. There is also a widely reported anecdote which tells of Caitlin bursting into a hospital room where Dylan lay dying and asking, ‘Is the bloody man dead yet?’ In her autobiographical book - Caitlin: Life With Dylan Thomas - Caitlin not only revealed squalid details of financial distress, infidelity, and alcoholism, but claimed the marriage had turned from a love story to a tragedy and was close to breaking down at the time of Thomas’s death. All of which fits in well with the image of Dylan Thomas as a womanising drunk, which has endured since John Malcolm Brinnin’s 1955 biography Dylan Thomas in America.

Nevertheless, there is another side to the story. According to Library Journal quoted by Amazon and others, Caitlin’s book also recorded ‘the tenacity and tenderness, the barely defined homeliness and dependence gently simmering, like her perennial pot of soup, above the turbulence’. And now a diary written by Caitlin in 1955 in a yellowing exercise school book has turned up, and it reinforces the more positive sides of the marriage.

The diary is part of a larger collection of Dylan Thomas material being sold by a New York enthusiast through Rick Gekoski. On his website, Gekoski calls himself a ‘rare book dealer, academic, publisher, critic, bibliographer, and broadcaster’, and as having been described as ‘the Bill Bryson of the book world’. Gekoski has cleverly attracted substantial publicity from the media for the collection, perhaps by providing a number of extracts. He says it’s for sale at $480,000 or £250,000 million. The collection is not, though, listed on his catalogue yet, where the most expensive item at present is a James Joyce ‘typescript schema for Ulysses’ in a collector’s case and priced at £75,000. On Abebooks, his highest priced item is a first edition of T S Eliot’s Ara Vos Prec, priced at $39,351.

An article in The Independent gives one extract about Caitlin imagining Thomas in his grave: ‘Oh God, oh Dylan, it must be cold down there; it is cold enough on top, in November: the dirtiest month of the year that killed you on the ninth vile day. If only I could take you a bowl of your bread, and milk, and salt, that you always drank at night, to warm you up.’

And the The Times adds this: ‘I am not going into that waste allotment of a T. S. Eliot elegy of a cemetery. Dylan will have to move up, in his single ditch, snug under the cliff, and make room for me; then we can keep each other warm, or cold, or maggot breeding.’ It also quotes this passage: ‘And sometimes I have the nerve to pretend that this Dylan love never was. I can make myself believe in the superfluity of this love for quite a long time; then it catches up with me, and it is all the crosser for being ignored.’

According to WalesOnline, Gekoski said the diary ‘is frantically over-written and overwrought’ and that Caitlin ‘never used one clause when she could use three’. Although, in his opinion, the writing isn’t good enough to be published, it is very frank, and ‘very raw, beautifully so’. He told WalesOnline ‘none of this has ever been seen before’ and that it is ‘the finest Dylan Thomas material ever put together’. He added, ‘when you have material of this quality someone will want it - £250,000 is actually a very reasonable price.’

Friday, August 8, 2008

Simon Gray’s Coda

Simon Gray died on Wednesday aged 71. Already many obituaries have been published on both sides of the Atlantic, most of them focusing as much on his diary writing as on his plays. Earlier this year, a third volume of his so-called Smoking Diaries were published, entitled The Last Cigarette, and another volume - Coda - is scheduled for publication in November.

Gray was born in Hayling Island, Hampshire, and educated at Westminster School and Cambridge. He married twice, the first time to Beryl Kevern, with whom he had two children, and the second time to Victoria Rothschild. In December 2004, he was awarded a CBE for services to drama and literature, having not only written more than 30 plays but taught English for many years at London University’s Queen Mary’s College.

There are a multitude of obituaries of Gray already available online, each one noting how much of a diarist he had become of late. The Daily Telegraph obituary starts as follows: ‘Simon Gray . . . was a prolific playwright of black comedies, and thrived off professional and personal conflict; during the last decade he found a new audience with a series of memoirs . . .’ And The New York Times obituary begins: ‘Simon Gray, who wrote bitingly comic plays like Butley, Otherwise Engaged and Quartermaine’s Terms about the educated British middle class and whose almost manically confessional late-in-life memoirs turned his sardonic intelligence upon himself, died on Wednesday in London.’

The Diary Junction Blog mentioned Gray recently, when The Last Cigarette was published, in an article entitled Smoking, heroin and opium (and it pointed to several online extracts of Gray’s diaries). Now it seems another, and presumably final, volume of diaries is to be published later this year - Coda. Because Granta is also a publisher (like John Murray - see Lees-Milne’s centenary) that doesn’t bother with a website, here is the blurb from Amazon.

‘It’s coming up to 4 am on a Friday morning, and I’ve just promised myself, a self loaded with and lightened by a couple of sleeping pills, that I will go on with this tomorrow. So begins Simon Gray’s powerful account of the year in which he struggles to come to terms with terminal cancer. From heartbreaking reflections on his own mortality to characteristically outrageous asides - ‘everybody knows somebody who knows somebody who was given six months to live, and here they are, only just dead, eight years later or, in exceptional cases, here they still are, eating oysters and boring the shit out of people’ - Gray’s self-proclaimed ‘last written words on the subject of myself’ records his extraordinary emotional journey. . . Written with exceptional candour and a poignant reluctance to leave this world behind, Simon Gray’s Coda is as life-affirming as it is heartrending.’

Famous flight at Le Mans

Although Orville Wright’s first controlled, powered and sustained flight famously took place on 17 December 1903, today, 8 August 2008, is the 100 year anniversary of a flight by Wilbur Wright which was the first official public demonstration of the Wrights’ invention. Both brothers kept diaries of their aviation experiments, and many of these entries are freely available online.

Wilbur and Orville, born into a large religious family, in 1867 and 1871 respectively, started their professional lives in Dayton, Ohio, as printers, but then opened a bicycle repair and sales shop in 1892. In less than five years they were manufacturing their own design and brand of cycles. The business brought in enough money for them to fund a growing interest in flying machines, and they set their focus on how such machines might be balanced and controlled in the air.

Before the end of the 1890s, the brothers were already deeply involved in the technicalities of flying, and were experimenting with gliders. But it was not until December 1903, that they made the first sustained, controlled flights in a powered aircraft (at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on the shores of the Atlantic). It was to be another five years before they would officially launch the idea of powered flight with a public demonstration (at Le Mans, France).

There is a wealth of information on the Wright brothers’ story available on the internet: Wikipedia’s article is extensive and informative but a bit dense; the Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company has good resources on its First-to-Fly website; and the National Air and Space Museum (Washington DC) maintains an excellent online exhibition about the brothers.

Very usefully for aviation historians, the Wright brothers kept technical diaries about their experiments. Two websites provide good extracts from these diaries. Wikisource has extracts of Orville’s diaries of 1902 and 1903, including a long extract from 17 December 1903, the day of the first flight. Here’s a part of that entry:

‘When we got up, a wind of between 20 and 25 miles was blowing from the north. We got the machine out early and put out the signal for the men at the station. . . . After running the engine and propellers a few minutes to get them in working order, I got on the machine at 10:35 for the first trial. The wind, according to our anemometers at this time, was blowing a little over 20 miles (corrected) 27 miles according to the Government anemometer at Kitty Hawk. On slipping the rope the machine started off increasing in speed to probably 7 or 8 miles. The machine lifted from the truck just as it was entering on the fourth rail. Mr. Daniels took a picture just as it left the tracks. I found the control of the front rudder quite difficult on account of its being balanced too near the center and thus had a tendency to turn itself when started so that the rudder was turned too far on one side and then too far on the other. As a result the machine would rise suddenly to about 10 ft. and then as suddenly, on turning the rudder, dart for the ground. A sudden dart when out about 100 feet from the end of the tracks ended the flight. Time about 12 seconds (not known exactly as watch was not promptly stopped). The lever for throwing off the engine was broken, and the skid under the rudder cracked. After repairs, at 20 min. after 11 o'clock Will made the second trial. . .’

Unfortunately, I cannot find any diary entries online for 8 August 2008, the day of the first official public flight. There is, though, a good description of the event on the WrightStories website.

Joyner Digital Library, at East Carolina University, has a digital exhibit on the Wright Brothers which includes many diary extracts by Orville and Wilbur, as well as their brother Milton, and these cover more than a decade from 1900 to 1911. Here is Wilbur on 2 May 1908:

‘We spent a comfortable night, the air being more quiet than the preceding night. We spent the day on actuating devices, &c. As this is all new work it takes much time. Charley worked most of the day on track and finished up a dozen rails each about 14 ft. long. The sitting position for the operators will probably be more comfortable but will require practice before we can tackle high winds. The N.Y. Herald has telegraphed the Weather Bureau operator at Manteo for information regarding us. Mr. Dosher also telephoned the K.D. Station today for information. He evidently had been asked by some paper to get news.’

As a postcript, and apropos of nothing but my inner bicycle being, I’d like to include a link to a photo of one of the beautiful Wright bicycles at the National Air and Space Museum. Only five still exist in the world.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Lees-Milne’s centenary

Today is the centenary of the birth of James Lees-Milne, one of the most celebrated and prolific literary diarists of the 20th century. To mark the anniversary, the ‘official James Lees-Milne website’ says, an exhibition has been organised near Oxford, and a new edition of the diaries is about to be published. This blog, however, will mark the day by using Lees-Milne’s own words, taken from birthday diary extracts.

Lees-Milne was born on 6 August 1908 into a wealthy family in Worcestershire, and was educated at public schools and at Oxford University. After working at Reuters for a while, a job he hated, he joined the National Trust, and was instrumental in its acquisition of many important buildings, not least Sissinghurst. He also pursued a writing career, producing novels, some of them autobiographical and books on architecture. However, he is best remembered for his diaries, initially published with some hesitation. They cover more than 50 years of his life, and have been published in many volumes.

Lees-Milne’s private life, involved with men and women, was colourful from an early age. In 1951, though, in his 40s, he married Alvilde Chaplin, a prominent gardening and landscape expert, and a lesbian. Their marriage is said to have been similar to that of Harold Nicolson (another famous literary diarist) and Vita Sackville-West, who lived at Sissinghurst, both of whom were, in fact, witnesses for James and Alvide at their wedding. They were also their lovers at one time - James with Harold in the 30s, and Alvide with Vita in the 50s! James and Alvide lived an unconventional life, only partly together, in France, and then at Alderley Grange where Alvilde created a garden, in Bath, and finally at a property on the Badminton estate. She died in 1994, and he in 1997.

The Diary Junction and Wikipedia have short biographical summaries on Lees-Milne, but the ‘official James Lees-Milne website’ created by Michael Bloch, Lees-Milne’s literary executor, carries a much more detailed biography. It also notes that two events will take place in August 2008 to mark the writer’s centenary.

Firstly, the third and last volume of a new edition of the diaries - edited by Bloch himself and covering the years 1984-1997 - will be published by John Murray. Incidentally, I am astonished to find that John Murray - one of Britain’s ‘most distinguished literary publishers’ - has no website presence, other than a small paragraph on Hodder Headline’s website. Thus, it is necessary to go to Amazon to find the publisher’s blurb which says: ‘Witty, waspish, poignant and self-revealing, James Lees-Milne’s last diaries contain as much to delight as the first, and confirm his reputation as one of the twentieth century’s great English diarists.’ Secondly, the centenary is being celebrated, apparently, by the calligrapher Andrew Moore giving an exhibition devoted to Lees-Milne at St Katherine’s Church, Chiselhampton near Oxford.

Here, though, are a few of Lees-Milne’s own words, extracted from birthday diary entries.

1943 - ‘My birthday. I am thirty-five. The horror of it! Except for my incipient baldness, fortunately on the crown of my head and on account of my height not always noticeable, I do not think I have changed much. My figure is the same as it was fifteen years ago.’

1944 - ‘My birthday, and the less I think about it the better. Only members of the family remember; for I suppose they are the only people to whom one’s existence does matter just a little.’

1973 - ‘Today I became a pensioner. If I wished to get a job I couldn’t. Henceforth I receive a pension from the state.’

1988 - ‘I am eighty. Have been so since 1:30 this morning. A beautiful day dawns, misty sunlight. . . . On front page of literary section [of The Daily Telegraph] an article about me by sweet Hugh Massingberd, which gives me enormous pleasure. Too eulogistic, but most welcome.’

1990 - ‘My eighty-second birthday. Heralded by Hugh Massingberd’s interview with me yesterday in The Daily Telegraph, which I can’t fault for kindness and understanding.’

(Massingberd was an Editor of Burke’s Peerage and considered an innovative obituaries editor for The Daily Telegraph. He died almost exactly 10 years after Lees-Milne, last December, and most of the obituaries about him, such as the one in The Independent, mention Lees-Milne for one reason or another.)

Here is a last Lees-Milne entry, not one from his birthday but just two days before it in 1973, which exemplifies both his high literary pretensions and his interest in sex: ‘It is too easy to be impatient with and censorious of sex when one is 65: the squalor of it, the repetition, the inanity. Yet there’s ground for disagreement that to be in communion with God all carnal appetites should be eschewed because the very actions of fornicating, over-eating, over-drinking are ephemeral, finite. Lusts being mortal are in consequence negative, without injury to man’s immortal gnosis. Whereas cerebration, devotional exercise, worship being perdurable and victorious remain unaffected by them. I daresay the old Fathers would dispute this ratiocination.’

Monday, August 4, 2008

A mad housewife’s daughter

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke is 50 today. She’s a native American writer and poet, and a literary performer of some power it seems. Interestingly, though, in the midst of the most terrible childhood, aged only 11, she wrote a diary - Diary of a Mad Housewife’s Daughter - and tells a very affecting story about it in her memoir Rock, Ghost, Willow, Deer.

Hedge Coke was born in Texas, on 4 August 1958, with cerebral palsy and temporal lobe epilepsy; and her childhood was dominated by one serious illness after another, by one kind of abuse after another, and by having a chronic schizophrenic for a mother. As a teenager and young adult, she lived outside for periods, and moved around, sharecropping tobacco, breaking horses, waiting tables, working in construction and commercial fishing. The Pen American Center website gives details of her colourful but disturbing biography.

However, for many years, Hedge Coke has been a celebrated writer with various books to her name. The Pen article says she has been called ‘a passionately unique and compelling writer’, and a Wikipedia articles suggests that ‘if William Blake were a twenty-first-century American Indian woman, he would be Hedge Coke’. Like Blake declaiming against soul-destroying ‘dark Satanic mills’, the article explains, ‘Hedge Coke calls for us to recognise the sanctity of ancestral land and to protect it, for ‘no human should dismantle prayer’. ’

In 2004, University of Nebraska Press published a memoir by Hedge Coke - Rock, Ghost, Willow, Deer, subtitled A Story of Survival - which looked back over her early life. ‘A name creates life patterns,’ Hedge Coke says, ‘which form and shape a life; my life, like my name, must have been formed many times over then handed to me to realise.’ Rock, Ghost, Willow, Deer is Hedge Coke’s narrative of that realisation, the publisher explains. In it the author describes the horrors of her early life: ‘her schizophrenic mother and the abuse that often overshadowed her childhood; the torments visited upon her, the rape and physical violence; and those she inflicted on herself, the alcohol and drug abuse’. Nevertheless, the publisher adds, Hedge Coke ‘managed to survive with her dreams and her will, her sense of wonder and promise undiminished’.

In Rock, Ghost, Willow, Deer, Hedge Coke provides a small (but I think very interesting) anecdote about a diary. Aged 11, she was inspired by an English teacher to write stories. So, she wrote one, with the title, Diary of a Mad Housewife’s Daughter taken from the title of a film she’d never seen (Diary of a Mad Housewife). She explains in the memoir how she worked diligently in her father’s toolshed, compiling the book from diary notes. Her teacher, not realising that Allison was, as she says of herself, ‘living the diary’, praised it as fiction, called her ‘unusually talented’, and suggested she meet some people involved in writing.

‘A stinger lodged deep in my spine and I panicked’, she writes in the memoir, ‘my English teacher intended to share this book with other adults. People who didn’t already know my mother would find out about her mental illness. Grabbing the pages, I ran from the classroom and raced home. . .’ Once there, she burnt the manuscript in an old stove. ‘Pages curled toward my face, paper blackening around the words, flames taking hold of the stories . . . I carried the ashes to the garden, hoping something could grow of it. Staying inside almost all night, I prayed my teacher wouldn’t tell anyone my story. I never mourned this book, but sometimes I wonder about the lost contents: hazardous, unaffordable.’